Skip to content

Looking Back: The Fur Lined Highway

The population explosion in rabbits began fifty years ago in 1960 and continued through to about 1964. It was unbelievable the amount of rabbits at the peak of the cycle.

The population explosion in rabbits began fifty years ago in 1960 and continued through to about 1964. It was unbelievable the amount of rabbits at the peak of the cycle. In those days everything south of 93rd Avenue between 100th Street and 86th Street was either bush or swamp, and that's where Kenny and I saw first hand the rabbits that all the adults were talking about. We went hunting, if you could call it that, because we never actually killed anything, but it was fun chasing the rabbits. I found out in later years that this is what it was like all over the North Peace . Rabbits every where, including on the Alaska Highway, which is the whole point of the story. I believe it was Ma Murray who coined the phrase "the fur lined highway" and it spread across the land, first provincially then federally and some even say it was world wide. People who had been in the Peace since the turn of the century said they had never seen anything like it and a lot of people had no idea why rabbits by the millions had invaded the North Peace. The following story was written in 1961 and explains why it happened. Apparently we're overdue for another invasion. Enjoy!

There might have been a few murmurs in Ottawa and Washington that the Alaska Highway was not paved but folks up in the North Peace were not holding their breath until it was.

In the meantime, the highway was probably the only one in all Canada that was fur linedand how could they get any attention from the authorities when they boasted of such luxurious thoroughfares?

It was the result of the mysterious cycle that the snowshoe rabbits went through every so often and they were numbered in the millions in 1961. Thousands of rabbits had been killed on the Alaska Highway by the traffic and their carcasses were particularly numerous just out of Dawson Creek.

The people of the area were indebted to Wildlife Review for an explanation of the bunny phenomenon by the late Dr. William Rowan of the University of Alberta.

Dr. Rowan said that approximately every 10 years something strange happens to many species of wildlife in Canada's northland. A mysterious catastrophe sweeps across the land and millions upon millions of wild creatures meet their end through a variety of causes. Professor Rowan made extensive studies of this so-called 10 year cycle, which actually averages out over the 250 years for which records are available, at 9.7 years, and his work on the subject made fascinating reading.

The humble snowshoe rabbit was one of the star performers in the wildlife drama and held the centre of the stage, but the cycle was also apparent in most of the furbearers, in the grouse family, in Hungarian partridge, in the magpie and the grosbeak, as well as in other species. The cycle was first seen by early fur traders and trappers who noted the steady increase in numbers from a low level, then an almost total disappearance of many species, with the fluctuation following a distinct pattern. There were peaks of abundance followed by extreme scarcity. Millions of these cyclic creatures one year and very few the next. A steady 10 year rhythm seemed to sweep the northland and the fur traders could not understand it.

The Hudson's Bay records gave a clear picture. When the annual fur take was plotted on graphs, the lines were seen to rise and fall over an approximate 10 year period with almost mathematical precision.

As the snowshoe rabbit was the leading actor, a look at this animal's history might help. Scientists had estimated that there may be some 10 rabbits to an acre at the peak of the cycle in Canada's northland. Ten rabbits to an acre is about 6,000 to a square mile, a remarkable number. Rabbits seemed to be everywhere. There was an estimated 10,000 rabbits on one 1 acre plot which reflected the prodigious numbers that these animals were attaining at their climax.

The peak was all the more remarkable when one remembered that the rabbit was preyed upon by hawks, owls, and almost all the furbearers, a vast horde of predators. Rabbits were the staple food of the lynx, and it's interesting to note that the graph of lynx abundance follows that of the rabbit, but one year later. It was plain to see that when the rabbit reached a peak and then a crash, something must happen to the predator which fed on them. Some species like the snowy owl were seen in southerly regions at such times but most of the others simply disappeared.

There were complications in the whole mystery. The cycle would hit its peak in one area one year and maybe two years later in another. It would be clearly discernible in one place, with an almost complete disappearance of a species, but in another, the die-off would often be much less pronounced. The cycle seemed to lose its effectiveness in southern latitudes and was much clearer in the north.

The crash usually hits in the fall, as a rule, but reaches its terrible climax the following spring when countless hordes of creatures are wiped out with diseases and infestations.

In 1942, almost six million rabbit pelts were shipped to the United States market form Alberta alone and yet even this great harvest seemed to have little effect on their numbers They were a great nuisance everywhere. But, in 1943, the story was different. There seemed to be no rabbits in the country.

They had disappeared.

When rabbits were at their peak, the Canadian north was teeming with life, but when the crash hit, the contrast was almost unbelievable. The land seemed lifeless. Only when summer came and the migratory birds returned from the south was there a temporary vitality. Naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton called this 10 year decimation "The Plague", but it was known today that many diseases rather than one ran riot sometimes of the crash and would wipe out hordes of creatures subject to the cycle.

The few survivors accomplished little in the way of reproduction and these few were preyed upon unceasingly by the predators which remained alive, but which themselves doomed because their food supply had almost disappeared.

The country remained "barren" for a few years then, as if by a miracle, the rabbit numbers once more began to mount. At the same time the predators increased, but no matter how heavy the pressure from predation, the rabbits numbers could not be held back. The 10 Year Cycle and the forces of nature would not be denied. The peaks come, as do the crashes, no matter how many predators may be present.

We learned from a local farmer by the name of Nick Parsons that the rabbits most likely died from a disease called myxomatosis. It was said that 99% of the rabbits infected by this disease died in the 50's and 60's. Myxomatosis is still present today, although only approximately 60% would die as the rabbit population has acquired a natural immunity. The disease is not dangerous to humans, only to rabbits!